ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Thousands of starry-eyed children all over the world are writing letters to the jolly man at the North Pole this holiday season, but they will not likely get a response from Santa Claus or his helpers.
The U.S. Postal Service is dropping a popular effort begun in 1954 in the small Alaska town of North Pole, where volunteers open and respond to thousands of letters addressed to Santa each year. Replies come with North Pole postmarks.
Postal Service officials said they are tightening rules in such programs nationwide after a postal worker in Maryland recognized a volunteer in the agency's Operation Santa program as a registered sex offender. The postal worker interceded before the individual could answer a child's letter, but the Postal Service viewed the episode as a big enough scare to make changes to the program.
People in North Pole are incensed by the change, likening the Postal Service to the Grinch trying to steal Christmas. The letter program is a revered holiday tradition in North Pole, where light posts are curved and striped like candy canes and streets have names such as Kris Kringle Drive and Santa Claus Lane. Volunteers in the letter program even sign the response letters as Santa's elves and helpers.
North Pole Mayor Doug Isaacson agreed that caution is necessary to protect children. But he's outraged the North Pole program should be affected by a sex offender's actions on the East Coast — and he thinks it's wrong that locals just found out about the change in recent days.
"It's Grinchlike that the Postal Service never informed all the little elves before the fact," he said. "They've been working on this for how long?"
The Postal Service began restricting its policies in such programs in 2006, including requiring volunteers to show identification.
But the Maryland incident involving the sex offender prompted additional changes, even forcing the agency to briefly suspend the Operation Santa program last year in New York and Chicago.
The agency now prohibits volunteers from having access to children's family names and addresses, spokeswoman Sue Brennan said. The Postal Service instead redacts the last name and addresses on each letter and replaces the addresses with codes that match computerized addresses known only to the post office — and leaves it up to individual post offices if they want to go through the time-consuming effort to shield the information.
Anchorage-based agency spokeswoman Pamela Moody said dealing with the tighter restrictions is not feasible in Alaska.
"It's always been a good program, but we're in different times and concerned for the privacy of the information," she said.
Moody stressed that kids around the world can still send letters to Santa Claus. The Postal Service still runs the giant Operation Santa Program in which children around the world can have their letters to Santa answered, and the restrictions do not affect private organizations running their own letter efforts.
But what will change are the generically addressed letters to "Santa Claus, North Pole" that for years have been forwarded to volunteers in the Alaska town. That program will stop, unless changes are made before Christmas.
Losing the Santa-letter cache is a blow to the community of 2,100 people, who pride themselves on their Christmas ties. Huge tourist attractions here include an everything-Christmas store, Santa Claus House, and the post office, where visitors can get a hand-stamped postmark on their postcards and packages if they ask for it.
Another issue raising the hackles on some locals is separate recent change. Anchorage — 260 miles to the south — is now processing the thousands of requests for North Pole postal cancellation marks on Christmas cards and packages from outside the state. It's a job long handled by nearby Fairbanks, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) away.
Moody said with as many as 800,000 items processed last year, Fairbanks is not equipped to handle the overload. Anchorage is the only city in Alaska with the high-speed equipment necessary to do the job without delay. Moody disagreed with the mayor's belief that the process creates a false postmark.
Santa Claus House, built like a Swiss chalet and chock full of all items Christmas, sells more than 100,000 letters from Santa and one of the lures is the postmark.
Operations manager Paul Brown believes his business will be affected under changes to the volunteer Santa letter program because tens of thousands of letters are addressed to Santa Claus House, North Pole, Alaska.
Those letters will still be forwarded to volunteers but it's unclear yet if anything will be done with them. Those intercepted by the postal service will probably eventually be shredded.
Brown worries about misinterpretations of the changes, such as people believing it's no longer possible to get individual pieces of mail graced with the North Pole postmark.